Community News

A day in the life of a volunteer: Blacksmith

By 26 January 2016January 13th, 2021No Comments

This third instalment chronicling the stories of volunteers here at the Museum, takes a look at a day in the life of Ian Campbell, one of our fantastic Museum blacksmiths.

When the Museum resumes usual opening times from 29 February 2016, you can find Ian stoking the fire and hammering away every Thursday in our Victorian Smithy from Southwater.

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Where it all started for Ian

“My introduction to blacksmithing was about 5 years ago – it was in a working blacksmith’s forge in a small Mennonite town in Northern Ontario, Canada.

Mr Turk, the blacksmith, was a friend of my eldest son and was the town’s metalworker – making everything from barn window frames to a fabulous suit of armour. My son had organised for us both to have a day beating hot metal and we made an elaborate candlestick and a rack of coat hooks.”

“Having finally retired at 70 from a career as a Quantity Surveyor and more recently a ‘hands-on’ Building Developer, I had a lovely day at the Museum’s forge making a toasting fork at one of its ‘Irons in the Fire’ courses, run by Martin Fox.

I was so impressed with the whole thing that I enquired about volunteering. Martin advised me to get some training, which I did at Plumpton College, and now four years later I am the Museum’s Thursday volunteer blacksmith!”

“Apart from working at a beautiful site in a lovely building, blacksmithing challenges me to design and fabricate all sorts of steel objects in the old fashioned way, and with a good deal of physical effort.

It’s great to have the chance to introduce this craft to children and adult visitors, and to show them how steel can be forged and shaped into something useful and often beautiful too.”

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A typical day at the forge

“The day starts with preparing the hearth and cleaning the previous day’s fire remains. When the coke is burnt there is a clinker residue, which needs to be removed by sieving, as it is un-burnable. Much of the old fuel can be burnt once a new fire is underway so it’s put to one side.

A can-sized hole is formed in front of the bellows blowhole in the dampened ash bed of the hearth. In here is built a small wood fire which, once well alight, can be covered with fresh coke. With gentle and then vigorous pumping of the bellows a good hot fire can be created within about ten minutes.

Assuming one pays attention to the pumping and you feed it with fuel, you can keep a good working fire going all day at a temperature you can use for all one’s forging needs. We can even get the fire up to welding temperature, which is about 1,300 degrees Celsius! I only use about 5 or 6 kilos of coke in a day.”

“We work really on the colour of the iron when it comes from the fire, hence having the building quite gloomy. It all encourages the dark mystery of crafts – rather like glass making with oxides being affected by sunlight.

I heard of a nice tale that, in medieval times, if a man could take a sword from the stone he would become the King of England (Arthur and the round table myth). Of course this was quite true as anyone who knew about smelting iron from iron ore rock would be in a position to forge steel swords and weapons, and become a most powerful ruler.

One can feel quite majestic in the forge in the failing evening light, with a roaring fire and the capacity to forge iron into strange shapes of one’s own invention!”

Ian Campbell, volunteer blacksmith at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum.

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Our Victorian smithy from Southwater

The History of the typical village smithy

There was a time when specialised crafts persons such as the Blacksmith would have been represented in virtually every rural village. It was a vital skill to village life. Jobs would have included making and repairing tools for the local households and farms, replacing the iron tyre on a cartwheel or as a farrier, making and repairing horseshoes.

The forge would normally be located in the centre of the village it served, preferably on the main road or at a crossroads.

The forge itself is the hearth and fire, although the term is frequently used to refer to the whole structure. Coal is normally used for fuel and the hearth is made of bricks, with a canopy and chimney above it. A large set of bellows is located next to the hearth to get the fire up to the high temperatures needed for metalworking.

Farriery formed the majority of the work for most blacksmiths, up until 1881 the blacksmith could also have been the first port of call to treat horses for injuries and illness. The agricultural tools would include items such as hoes, forks, harrows and shepherds crooks for example.

They may also work with other village craftspeople such as the carpenter, who would normally make the handles and shafts for the tools. The objects required would have mostly been utilitarian, with a practical use, rarely ornamental work. The blacksmith could also repair other household items, such as cooking utensils, door fittings, candle holders etc.

More to see and do at the Museum

Blacksmithing is just one of the fascinating historic trades & crafts on display at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum.

Read about Leadwork at the Museum, our working watermill from Lurgashallmilling through the yearsa day in the life of a volunteer miller and a day in the life of an I/C Bayleaf

Join a tour of our award-winning Downland Gridshell building for an inside look at our extensive artefact collection, displaying rural trades and crafts throughout the ages.

Experience our extensive programme of adult-education courses in traditional rural trades and crafts, historic domestic life and building conservation.